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Walcott, Pissarro, and the Search for Tiepolo’s Hound

by Diane Mehta


Tiepolo’s Hound
by Derek Walcott. 164 pgs. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000.


“The dog, the dog, where was the fucking dog?” barks Derek Walcott in Tiepolo’s Hound as he flips through art books looking for a painting by Tiepolo or Veronese. The million-dollar question is who painted the natty white hound, “nosing a forest of hose” at a feast, that inspired Walcott in his youth? The title of this 164-page poem suggests the mystery painter is Tiepolo, but Walcott never lets us know for sure. He builds our suspense, then halfway through the book abandons the search. He does this because the dog, which is the book’s eponymous hero, is not the point. It may be the book’s main leitmotif, but never becomes more than a theme. Instead, the quest is developed in the main narrative, the life of the Impressionist painter and printmaker Camille Pissarro.

There are obvious parallels between Walcott and Pissarro. Both were raised in the Lesser Antilles, in the Caribbean. Pissarro was born on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and left for France in his teens, to study painting. He was an outsider—a French Jew, originally of Portuguese descent. Walcott was raised in St. Lucia by an English father and West Indian mother—Methodists in a Catholic colony. Walcott, too, has spent most of his life overseas. By chance, Pissarro and Walcott were born a hundred years apart. But while Pissarro only achieved minor renown in his lifetime, Walcott has earned tremendous success. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, and before that a MacArthur “genius” Award (1981). The list of other awards is long. He has published nearly twenty books of poetry, of which Omeros, his epic tribute to Homer, is the most well known.

Walcott is a successful playwright, with five volumes of plays under his belt. His background in theater is significant because in some ways Tiepolo’s Hound is like a play—the chronicle of Pissarro’s life provides momentum and gives the poem structure, but the tone of Walcott’s musings about art heightens the drama.

The connection between the dog and Pissarro? Both seem to represent Walcott’s own struggle about race. “Turn your gaze about to the starved pot hound that your foot once spurned,” Walcott challenges in the beginning of Tiepolo’s Hound. But like the dog that is “unsure of everything, even its shadow,” Walcott suffers a self-doubt that is central to the book. The fierce determination to overcome doubt and work through the problems of writing shapes the moral struggle in Tiepolo’s Hound. Walcott’s famously tough, grand stance is a mask—clear from the sarcastic tone he takes over the rejection of Pissarro’s paintings from the annual art salons in Paris: “For a Danish colonial Jew from a dirty, backward island to enter the museum’s bronzed doors, that would never do.”

Walcott follows a European tradition—Yeats, Auden, and Shakespeare echo in his rhythms. But he has American slang in his repertoire and a Creole sensibility at his core. As a world-class poet he is expected to continue writing the big, historical poems that have made him famous—but he is also expected to carry the third-world torch. Although Walcott’s early poems were at times overtly political, in the last few decades his technique has been more subtle. In Tiepolo’s Hound, for example, Walcott expresses his opinion about colonialism by explaining what it was like for Pissarro:

no Pissarro landscape has some rain-whipped wretch
huddling under some oak; he has a balanced heart

without the rhetoric of Delacroix or Turner, wind
silvering the poplars hid whatever wound

he endured raw as a stone quarry, ground
that common shoes walk on, peace that is earned.

Pissarro bore his struggles and looked to painting for serenity: “his skill was not in such fury, he painted peace // in long-shadowed roads, in the gathering war / of silvery thunderheads.” In his plein air paintings of rustic winter scenes, Pissarro quietly explored the properties of light—he developed his own style, capturing the many moods of the landscape as the daylight shifted across it. Preferring to work with his problems rather than elude them, Pissarro worked with variations of that style throughout his life. Perhaps Walcott is drawn to Pissarro for this very reason, simply because

He cherishes the plain
and the repetitive: light in a kitchen,

cats coiled on chairs, and sunlight shot with rain,
things without grandeur in their modest shine.

The vivid, melancholic tone that distinguishes Pissarro’s paintings is also characteristic of Walcott’s verse—he has been writing his own version of landscape paintings for half a century. Walcott has also contributed his own watercolor landscapes, some of which are captivating, to this volume. While many of his paintings are technically accomplished, it seems unlikely that he wants to hold his artwork up to Pissarro’s. It is appropriate, however, to publish his Caribbean landscapes in a volume that in the end is about tossing self-doubt aside and going home. Looking at landscapes is also a welcome respite from the verse, as the book, if beautifully written, is not short. It’s useful to see how lush, Caribbean landscapes intrigue Walcott in the same way that light fascinated Pissarro.

Pissarro’s plein air landscapes now seem conventional—but the brushstrokes and use of color differed wildly from Academic art, then in vogue. Pissarro realized, for example, that a limited, earth-toned palette would produce a sense of utter cold, and a varied one—such as that used in his famous “The Road to L’Hermitage in the Snow”—would brighten the winter’s bleakness and produce an intense, ethereal composition. Impressionist experiments with color, shape, light, and their methods of applying paint on the canvas permanently changed the way people think about painting. “Geometry, not God” is what Walcott says the Impressionists were after—“No deity outdoors, no altar...light was their faith.”

That seems to be what Walcott is after as well. He makes sure everything ties together through rhymes, word choices, and exacting descriptions. In a larger sense, he seems to be looking for ways to put himself, as an artist and outsider, in perspective—against his teachers and contemporaries. Most satisfying are not his historical overviews or his musings on art, but his descriptions of the kind of painting that excites him. He is particularly good on Cézanne:

The practice of modulation by a succession
Of square, progressive strokes transformed a canvas

by Cézanne to a musical score. This was not Impressionism
but visible syntax; a plaster cupidon, a blue vase

balanced on a tilted table, a canted horizon
and the planes of perspective challenge reason,

an idiosyncratic symmetry, a private grammar and brutal geometry. Paint had, until then,

pretended it wasn’t paint, but now an equal drama
was made of every inch…

The phrase “idiosyncratic symmetry” describes both Cézanne’s and Walcott’s work. Walcott is a craftsman—with an impeccable ear and a knack for turning a good phrase:

Paint a true street in Anse La Raye, Choiseul,
the roasting asphalt, the bleached galvanise roofs

grooved like these lines, paint the dark heat as well
inside the canted shacks, do the blurred hooves

of a boy whooping a white mare near a lagoon
for gone Gauguin, paint the violet bruise

of reef under water wiry at noon,
paint the cathedral’s solace, the canoes

resting in the almonds, always the same
canoes resting under the almonds…

The acoustics are carefully engineered—the resonant, low-frequency “oo” sound that “Choiseul” introduces is echoed in roofs, grooved, hooves, lagoon, bruise, noon, and canoes. This has a mellowing effect. The lines achieve balance and proportion as similar sounds are repeated. And by putting the word “paint” in different parts of the line, Walcott emphasizes the word while he uses it to propel the sentence forward. The alliteration in “gone Gauguin” and “water wiry” gives the otherwise melodious effect an edge.

Tiepolo’s Hound fills a gap in American poetry. It’s a long, rhymed poem about big ideas—history, colonialism, ambition, and self-awareness. Whitman kick-started the American long poem in 1855 with a rambling, ecstatic style in Song of Myself. Over the next century, Pound’s Cantos and Williams’s Paterson followed suit.

Walcott’s main models for long poems are not American but European: Chaucer, Dante, Milton, and Louis MacNeice. Similar to the more narrative quests depicted in these poems, there are moral struggles at the heart of Walcott’s journeys, and parables to tell along the way.

What is striking about Tiepolo’s Hound is how Walcott has loosened up on the drama more than he usually allows. Perhaps this is because Walcott, now seventy years old, wants to look back over his life. He has traded in the meaty three-line stanzas of Omeros (1990) for couplets, which, he tells us, represent two worlds—a divided past of half-and-half sensibility, perhaps. Walcott has always found ways to showcase form. In Midsummer it was paragraph-like stanzas with surprise rhymes scattered throughout. Omeros had rhymes connecting almost every other line. Now in Tiepolo’s Hound, Walcott has given us his twist on the couplet.

The original couplet—a two-line rhymed stanza—was an epigrammatic, summing-up form. The poet Alexander Pope wrote in heroic couplets—closed two-liners. That means the end of the sentence coincided and rhymed with the end of the stanza:

In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere and rush into the skies.
                                                 (Essay on Man)

That was three hundred years ago. Walcott’s twist is an ab/ab pattern—the next couplet completes the rhymes began in the first couplet (like a quatrain cut in two). He tosses meter aside and writes based on intuitive rules of pacing and rhythm. That’s why the trendy belief that Walcott is old-school seems misled. The only thing that’s structured about this poem—as with many earlier ones—is the symmetrical shape of the stanzas, and the rhymes that link them.

As for subject matter, overt gestures aren’t necessary when a work is inherently political. A long poem about colonialism by a West Indian poet fits the bill. But reconciling the horrors of colonialism with its benefits is a complicated matter. Walcott is an artist to his core—he errs on the side of art and individual feeling, which take precedence over nationalism or internationalism, or any other ism:

the great works we admire
civilise and colonise us, they chain our hands

invisibly. Museums seen as magnetic prisons
for the gifted exile, the self-diminishing ceiling

of a baroque glory more humbling than the sun’s
predictable blue, till the exile sits, reeling

with astonishment, in the tints of Tiepolo’s sky,
in the yellowing linen of a still life by Chardin,

in that stroke of light that catches a hound’s thigh
the paint is all that counts, no guilt, no pardon,

no history, but the sense of narrative time
annihilated in the devotion of the acolyte,

as undeniable as instinct, the brushstroke’s rhyme
and page and canvas know one empire only: light.

This is not so different from Walcott’s 1979 announcement in “The Schooner Flight”: “I had no nation now but the imagination.” Walcott means it when he says “the paint is all that counts.” The light on the dog’s thigh or in Pissarro’s landscapes is not just about art with a capital “A.” Whether you call it art, inspiration, happiness, or something equally redemptive, it’s about believing in something—namely fascination and the ability to make something meaningful of it. It’s a noble thought. Does Walcott really believe it? “Painting was not enough,” he admits in Tiepolo’s Hound.

~

Walcott creates compelling narratives, and, along with V. S. Naipaul, he has introduced to the West the richness and complexity of the Caribbean. It’s a place, the public now understands, where epics happen.

It is also a place where colonialism wreaked havoc. In Tiepolo’s Hound, Walcott does not limit his coverage to colonialism’s mayhem in the Caribbean. Among his round-up of places where tragic injustices have occurred are also southern Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. Then there is Jewish suffering—the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain, the Dreyfus Affair in France, and the Holocaust. It’s a lot to cover, but it all coheres by way of Pissarro:

He wasn’t much of a Jew. He did not observe,
as he had on the island, the tribal sorrow

that Dreyfus added to. How could he serve
the fields of France with a name like Pissarro

Drawing parallels between Pissarro and Dreyfus, Walcott accuses Pissarro of hypocrisy:

Perhaps of either treachery Art was worse.

Perhaps his brushstrokes should have been subjected
To their analysis, as was Dreyfus’s hand.

Examined closely, his foliage could be read
As Hebrew script; each vowel, each ampersand.

Was he enough of a Jew? Walcott’s irony is double-edged. Pissarro did what he did best—he painted. But was he a Jewish painter? Walcott is making a rhetorical point—being an outsider always catches up to you. So does one’s conscience—“Conspirators, spies / are what are artists are, changing the truth.” But it’s not only about race—Walcott seems to be suggesting that every artist has a responsibility to do more than float along and make art. He has a responsibility to present the truth—and then to think twice about the truth he is presenting. This may be one reason why Walcott has made Pissarro his subject. Not a revolutionary artist but an accomplished one, Pissarro was in his own way trying to tell the truth—he wanted to figure out light and color, and get the landscapes right. Perhaps that achievement is enough. Pissarro’s story hits home for Walcott, and during the course of the book, he realizes he had been looking in the wrong places for the white hound:

As if a black pup turned into the ghost
Of the white hound, but a search that will lead us

Where we began: to islands, not the busy
But unchanged patronage of the empire’s centre,

Guests at the roaring feast of Veronese,
Or Tiepolo’s Moors, where once we could not enter.

Walcott’s “we” makes it clear where his allegiance lies. In a nutshell, he was chasing himself around the world when he should have checked the Caribbean—

Then one noon where acacias shade the beach
I saw the parody of Tiepolo’s Hound

in the short salt grass, requiring no research,
but something still unpainted, on its own ground.

But here’s where the book gets murky. Walcott describes the dog, only an imagined sketch, as:

the mongrel’s heir, not in a great
fresco, but bastardly, abandonment, and hope

and love enough perhaps to help it live
like all its breed, and charity, and care.

This is the first mention of love in the entire book, and it seems like an afterthought, as does this frankly stated passage, still about Pissarro, that is the climax of the book-long hunt for the dog:

some critics think his work is ordinary
but the ordinary is the miracle.

The passage lacks the high-intensity pitch characteristic of Walcott’s most inspired work. He seems tired. However, the next few couplets contain the carefully wrought music that elevates so much of Walcott’s best verse:

Ordinary love and ordinary death,
ordinary suffering, ordinary birth,

the ordinary couplets of our breath,
ordinary heaven, ordinary earth.

The rhythm is masterful—it’s all about pacing. The first two lines have caesuras that divide each line. What follows is a faster-moving line, and then, shrewdly, Walcott adds a pause to the next line, to slow it down. It’s a simple trick, but it works.

But it’s hard to tell whether Walcott really esteems this idea of the ordinary as much as he reconciles himself to it. It brings to mind one of Yeats’s last poems, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”: “Players and painted stage took all my love / And not those things that they were emblems of.” Between the rosy “love enough” that helps the imagined dog live and this caving-in to the ordinary, it is a revealing comment on fame by one of the world’s most famous poets. What’s left remains for others, not for the poet or painter. Perhaps it’s not really a matter of comparing happiness with sadness, but learning to live with all of it:

A ceiling from Tiepolo: afternoon light will ripen
the sky over Martinique to alchemical gold,

a divided life, drawn by the horizon’s hyphen
and no less irresolute as I grow old.

 

Diane Mehta is a New York-based poet and critic. Her most recent work can be found in The Gettysburg Review, The Harvard Review, Western Humanities Review, and Bomb. (2000)


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